The Dynamic Duo of LAUSD: How two educator/advocate/moms convinced the school board of the largest school district in California to address dyslexia, and what we can learn from their experience.
By Cheri Rae
In mid-June, news reverberated quickly around California’s dyslexia advocacy community: School board members of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) were considering passage of a major dyslexia resolution directing the Superintendent to develop a comprehensive plan to address dyslexia within 90 days.
The LAUSD board had already passed a ceremonial resolution in 2016, recognizing October as Dyslexia Awareness Month. Thanks to the unceasing efforts of two DDCA members that heightened awareness about dyslexia, school board members realized the need to make meaningful change in the district’s approach to dyslexia, and wrote and passed the second resolution.
Decoding Dyslexia CA (DDCA) members immediately grasped the importance of LAUSD’s action for other school districts in California. With a student population of approximately 639,000 students, it is the largest school district in the state and second in the nation. If this enormous and complex district could take this important action in addressing dyslexia, it would set an example, and a standard for others to follow.
Thanks to DDCA’s strong social media network, dyslexia advocates from the Golden State, as well as internationally known dyslexia experts across the nation (many who had worked on the guidelines associated with AB 1369), responded quickly and flooded the email accounts of LAUSD’s school board members with letters urging them to pass the resolution.
On June 20, 2017 they did. Unanimously.
Surely, you must think, it took a very long time to get this resolution written, and required a large a number of advocates lobbying and working together to make this happen. After all, LAUSD is a massive organization with many levels of bureaucracy. Most of us who have worked with school districts have been told repeatedly to be patient, not to expect too much too fast, that real institutional change takes time and a great deal of effort.
That’s where this story offers a surprising twist: DDCA’s Los Angeles Regional Leaders, Pamela Cohen and Sherry Rubalcava, were able to influence this change in just nine short months. No study group, no blue-ribbon commission, no dyslexia task force, no special committee of educators and stakeholders needed—just a couple of smart, well-informed mothers of children with dyslexia who made their case to just the right people at just the right time.
Mothers, Educators Turned Advocates
Cohen has been an art teacher in LAUSD for more than 20 years, and Rubalcava, a longtime bilingual teacher, administrator and California Teacher of English Learners instructor, is now retired from LAUSD after 37 years. They connected via email a couple of years ago through DDCA when both were looking to connect with others interested in dyslexia in Los Angeles. They arranged a meeting at Rubalcava’s home with a couple of other parents who had been referred to them. During that four-hour get-together, they spoke of their shared frustration with the lack of appropriate services for students with dyslexia, since they had experienced it first-hand, both as longtime educators and as mothers.
Rubalcava is also the grandmother of a child with dyslexia; she actually relocated to North Carolina to tutor him when he was struggling in school. Utilizing her training as an English as a Second Language teacher, for three years she worked with him two to three hours a night, teaching him to read, write and spell. “Now he’s 12 years old and in middle school,” she notes, “he plays the clarinet, reads music, and got 5s in three areas, English, Science and Social Studies and a 4 in Math.” The hardworking grandmother adds, “I am just so proud of his perseverance.”
Cohen, too, has personal experience with dyslexia, dating back a decade when teachers reassured her that her then-second-grader just needed to try harder to catch up with his peers. Then a neuro-psychologist suggested she could take out a home equity loan to pay for a $5,000 assessment. She then consulted with a psychologist-friend who administered a complete battery of tests for just $500 and determined her son had a “reading disability.” So began a long journey with educational therapists and reading specialists who worked with him.
In short, both women were seasoned in the whys and wherefores of dealing with dyslexia, and they decided to do something about improving the lives of up to 20 percent of students who deal with dyslexia in school.
They consulted with LAUSD school board member Scott Schmerelson, a former teacher and principal, who quickly embraced the notion of a dyslexia resolution. As Rubalcava remembers, “With his experience and compassion, he immediately identified with the far-reaching consequences of unidentified and unremediated dyslexia.”
Board member Schmerelson listened carefully as Rubalcava discussed dyslexia with him. “I knew Sherry as an assistant principal, and I trust her judgment and instincts,” he said. “When she told me her story about her grandson, it’s all I had to hear. I give all credit to her!”
Thanks to the case made by Rubalcava and Cohen, the school board considered Schmerelson’s resolution recognizing October as Dyslexia Awareness Month on September 20, 2016. Following public comment on dyslexia-related issues raised by parents, grandparents and students, Board President Steve Zimmer summoned a special education administrator, and questioned her about what the school district was doing to address dyslexia. As administrators often do when questioned in public, she offered assurances that students with dyslexia were being supported.
The resolution passed.
Cohen and Rubalcava knew well that like most ceremonial resolutions, the pro forma passage of a dyslexia awareness resolution would do very little to help students in the classroom. So they kept on their path and true to purpose in the months following. Intent on seizing the momentum they had created, and concerned about what they perceived as a lack of action, they enlisted the support of another parent of a student with dyslexia, Daisy Ortiz. She helped them reopen contact with another school board member, Ref Rodriguez. They were eventually asked to provide information and expertise for the crafting of a resolution directing the district to come up with a significant dyslexia plan that passed unanimously on June 20, 2017.
Board member Rodriguez reported that the Dear Colleague Letter (giving Federal guidance on the use of the term dyslexia) and a PowerPoint about AB 1369 that was created by the CDE and presented to SELPA directors helped seal the deal, and influenced the board members to move forward on dyslexia.
Their resolution directed the LAUSD Superintendent to come up with a plan to update the district’s dyslexia policies, procedures and practices, including staff development, reading instruction, assessments and, “ensure the provision of free and appropriate public education by providing an evidence-based, multisensory, direct, explicit, structured, and sequential approach to instructing students with dyslexia…,” and to report back “within 90 calendar days.”
To many dyslexia advocates—including this one—who have worked literally for years for that kind of official embrace and recognition of dyslexia in their districts in such a short time this was a stunning accomplishment. To Schmerelson, it was too long of a wait. “I was highly impatient, and I wanted to get moving! People have to be trained,” he notes.
Learning from Their Experience
As educators, Cohen and Rubalcava went into this process knowing what it takes to make progress in a big bureaucracy: identifying and approaching the right contact person who can make a difference; designating a few well-informed advocates to make the case; providing decision-makers with well-researched documentation. Along the way they had to deal with the same kinds of frustrations faced by most advocates: the “no’s,” the unreturned calls, the ignored emails and the broken promises. But they overcame their frustrations and impatience with determination and persistence. “Looking back,” observes Rubalcava, “we can see that the obstacles were just part of the process. Every closed door opened a new and better door.”
Their advice is to be strategic—find people with connections to high-level district employees, and also mobilize on a grassroots level. But they note you don’t need masses of people involved. They also emphasize that you must become well-informed, and be willing to offer that information to decision-makers. As Rubalcava noted, “You can’t go in begging them to do right, because they will just say they can’t afford it. You have to cite the law, and in doing so, you obligate them to consider it.”
Cohen agreed, “But they can’t afford not to do it. You see it in schools every day, in conversations with teachers; they see the red flags. It’s a mother thing: Teachers don’t see success, and kids don’t experience it. It’s just so heartbreaking.”
Both cited the overwhelming support from DDCA members as having an effect on the school board members, and singled out Lisa Lloyd Riggs and Lori DePole, for helping with this important outreach, and as Cohen said, “getting people to take the extra step.” Rubalcava nodded, “It could have played a big part; it definitely had an effect.”
Schmerelson verified that the 25 to 30 letters he received definitely affected him: “I read them all, and what impressed me was that they were all from the heart, not carbon copies of each other.” In considering his support of addressing dyslexia, he looked beyond the academic and addressed the socio-emotional aspects that often come into play: “So many discipline problems are a matter of frustration of students not being able to read. I think the number of discipline referrals will go way down.”
Our successful advocates offer a little more advice: Mind your manners, stressing how they followed up with thank you notes for all board members and administrators involved in the resolution, and offered their services and support.
Above all, remember, to dream big. As Rubalcava notes, “One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is to remember that they are resilient. You can help them reach their full potential when you provide them with low anxiety AND high expectations; the two can co-exist, and when they do, the sky’s the limit.”
One final note: As a result of the dyslexia resolution, LAUSD moved quickly into action, with the creation of the district’s Dyslexia Learning Group, comprised of educators, advocates and parents that will help the district develop policies and procedures to address dyslexia. They had their first meeting in July, just a month after the passage of the resolution. Now that is making progress!
Cheri Rae is the Santa Barbara Regional Leader of DDCA, the author of “DyslexiaLand,” the director of Dyslexia Santa Barbara, and the mother of a 20-year-old son with dyslexia. Contact her at TheDyslexiaProject@gmail.com